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one Malebolge, or the Ordnance of Genre Not all popular genres are meant to blow up. We pretty much expect from mysteries today something of the same thrill that readers expected a century ago; tempestuous romances only seem to get more tempestuous; and the Western long ago quietly faded away into elegiac ghost towns waiting for Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry to show up with more ammo. But the fantastic genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy have been unstable literary isotopes virtually since their evolution into identifiable narrative modes— or at least into identifiable market categories—a process that began a century or more ago and is still going. Although at times they have seemed in such bondage to formula and convention that they were in danger of fossilization, these genres are in fact wired more like those ticking, blinking time bombs in the final moments of bad suspense movies that must be disarmed by cutting either the red wire or the green wire: Make the wrong choice (which the hero never does) and the movie probably would get a better ending—or at least a less formulaic one—as its fundamental assumptions are shot to hell and what had seemed one thing is now another. (Never mind, for the moment, that bad movies never actually end this way. We are discussing fiction here, and one of the curses visited upon genre fiction is that it is too often and too easily confused with the film genres of the same names.) A good deal of cavalier wire-cutting is going on these days among writers using the resources of what were once fairly clearly delineated genres, and for the most part this is a salutary and exhilarating development, bringing with it a sense of breached ramparts and undiscovered terrain. What had seemed to be one thing is becoming another. But in order to understand fully the implications of this shift, this new superposition of fictional states, we have to understand a bit about how the bomb got in the basement in the first place, and what its components are. An important key to this understanding, I would argue, 4 GENRES involves revisiting not only what is written under the various rubrics of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but what is read, and how it is read, and how certain selective vacancies of sensibility have distorted our capacity to receive the fantastic as a viable mode of literary exploration. In particular, what I hope to do here is trace, in broad outline, an account of how we unlearned to read fantastic stories over nearly two centuries, what became of such stories as a result, and how the fantastic has begun to re-emerge in varying ways in recent decades from the back alleys to which it had been consigned, bringing with it distinctive modes of apprehension and style. This brief history might as well begin with a real-life anecdote. Toward the end of my graduate studies at the University of Chicago, a number of students who had participated in a Theory of Fiction seminar launched into a rambling co√eehouse debate that lasted most of the academic year, turning on the question of what formally constituted a novel. After a raft of theoretical models had been considered and ultimately rejected, after principles of exclusion had been refined and multiplied in what we might now recognize as a fractal pattern of growth, several members of the group—perhaps even the entire group, I don’t remember—arrived at a consensus: The formal novel, they decided, the properly formal novel, meaning one that satisfied all the rules of exclusion, consisted of a set that included Middlemarch and excluded everything else. Whatever simple delights might have been o√ered by earlier narratives, these were invariably contaminated by the viruses of romance, Gothicism, sensation, satire, social documentarianism, allegory, and even myth. At their best, they only represented the forward slope of this peak experience, this überroman, while subsequent e√orts represented only refinements of style, form, and structure, if not outright abandonment of the ideal in the guise of Modernism and all that came after. At that time, I counted myself as much an admirer of Middlemarch as anyone in the room, but at the same time I knew that I had derived substantial degrees of pleasure and discovery from stories that not only demonstrated no e√ort whatsoever to look like Middlemarch, but that seemed to be...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780819571045
Related ISBN
9780819569363
MARC Record
OCLC
726747951
Pages
280
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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